‘A true Thanksgiving:’ Woman’s cancer ordeal led firefighters to shave heads

After many ups and down over the last several months, Renee Thomas and her husband, Troy, are thankful that her cancer is in remission. Buy this photo

SUMMERVILLE — Peach fuzz on the shaved heads of Troy Thomas’ firefighting crew. Finally. That’s when it hit home for him.

Today, he and Renee Thomas, his wife, are home, celebrating what she calls “a true Thanksgiving.”

She is in remission after a brutal battle against cervical cancer that put her through three surgeries, 12 rounds of chemotherapy and 32 radiation treatments in less than a year, while doctors used words like “uncommon” and “aggressive.”

It was pure hell.

In April, her hair fell out. She texted Troy, a Mount Pleasant fire lieutenant. He felt helpless, a little lost. He turned to his crew and asked if anyone had shears, so they could shave his head bald too.

One by one, the crew shaved their own heads. Then another shift did. Then another. Within a few weeks, 125 firefighters and others — men and women — had shaved bald in a Lowcountry show of support.

In July, Thomas came to the fire station with the news: Renee was cleared. The next shift, the crew was sporting peach fuzz.

That’s when it hit home. Troy, who had been Renee’s rock throughout the ordeal, simply broke down.

One day in April, Renee lay in a Hollings Cancer Center bed in pain and too sick from treatment to even lift her head. It was maybe their bleakest moment. All she could say to Troy was, “Please, pray.”

Troy looked up and a turtle dove settled on the window sill outside. He squeezed her hand and showed her.

“God answered us,” he said. “We’re going to get through this.”

Today, Renee has the peach fuzz, a close crop of hair that gives her a pixie look. “I’m cuter,” she said with a pixie’s smile.

The couple’s life has changed. They are more spiritual. They are ready to give back. They plan to work with cancer patients as mentors, to give them the kind of boost they could have used the day they heard the diagnosis.

“There’s so many possibilities out there as far as opportunities to give back to those who have done so much for me. That’s where my heart is right now,” Renee said.

Among other gestures, they are presenting to the Hollings Cancer Center a large, framed photograph of the bald firefighters taken with Renee.

It’s to inspire other patients, sure. But more, it’s to give a lift to the staff who treated Renee, who “wrapped their hearts around us,” Troy said.

“The first time Renee told me the firefighters had shaved their heads, it brought tears to my eyes,” said Whitney Graybill, Renee’s doctor at the Medical University of South Carolina center.

“She loves life. She lives with gusto. She’s a fighter. The solidarity of the firefighters, it’s such a blessing, it’s such an inspiration and it is really for me what Thanksgiving is all about. It just makes you grateful for each day you have.”

Renee, 35, has always wanted children, but it didn’t happen. Now she and Troy are going to adopt.

“It takes something like this to realize, oh my goodness, I don’t have tomorrow. I only have today,” she said.

Troy is refocused, far more patient than he used to be. He makes a point of making time to spend time with her.

They are celebrating a traditional holiday with family. Renee’s big plans are to eat lots of turkey. That’s the best part, the part she yearned for only a few months ago.

Her Thanksgiving will be normal life.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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